Public Interest Litigation Versus Citizen Suit

In India, ‘Public Interest Litigation’ means litigation for the protection of the interest of the public. It is a litigation introduced in a court of law by the court itself or by any other private party. Thus, ‘pubic interest litigation’ is not filed by the aggrieved party. As far as the jurisdiction of the court is concerned it is not necessary, that the person who is the victim of the violation of his or her right should approach the court personally. Public interest litigation is the power given in the hands of the public by courts through judicial activism.

Such litigations may happen when the injured party does not have the necessary resources to commence litigation or when his freedom to move the court has been suppressed or encroached upon. Moreover, the court can itself take cognizance of the matter and proceed suo motu. Moreover, any public-spirited individual can also file a public interest litigation on behalf of the aggrieved party.


As compared to Public interest litigation in India, in the United States there exists a concept of Citizen Suit. ‘Citizen Suits’ are lawsuits that are brought by the private individuals or nonprofit groups. Citizen suits are particularly common in the field of environmental law. Since agencies of the United States do not catch and prosecute all the violators of environmental statutes, the concept of citizen suits gains extreme importance. It empowers anyone who has an interest in the protection of environment to demand that laws be enforced. Provisions for the enforcement of citizen suits exist both on the federal level and in some state’s environmental statutes. On the federal level, provisions for citizen suits are generally narrower and limited to the specific laws. On the contrary, when the states agree to citizen suits, there are usually less hurdles for the plaintiffs. State-level citizen suits are likely to have a greater impact on overall enforcement.




In India, any public-spirited person can file a Public Interest Litigation case (PIL) on behalf of a group of persons, whose rights are affected. It is not necessary, that person filing a case should have a direct interest in the Litigation. For example: A person in Bangalore can file a Public Interest Litigation for malnutrition deaths in Orissa. Any person can file a PIL on behalf of a group of persons to compel municipal authorities to perform public duty. Any person can file a PIL in the Supreme Court for taking action against a cracker factory that is employing child labour However, it will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case, whether such a litigation should be allowed or not.

However, the strict rule of `locus standi' applicable to the private litigation has been relaxed by the Supreme Court.


A Public Interest Litigation can be filed only against a State Government, Central Government, Municipal Authorities, and not any private party. However a "Private party" can be included in the Public Interest Litigation as a "Respondent", after making the concerned State authority a party. For example, in the case of a private factory in Delhi, causing pollution, then people living in its vicinity or any other person can file a PIL against the Government of India, the State Pollution Board and also against the private factory.

However, a PIL cannot be filed against the private party alone; the concerned State Government, and State authority has to be made a party.



A PIL can be filed when the following conditions are fulfilled:

There must be a PUBLIC WRONG and PUBLIC INJURY caused by the wrongful act or omission of the state or public authority.

For the enforcement of the basic human rights of the weaker sections of the community who are exploited, ignorant and whose fundamental and constitutional rights have been infringed.

It must not be frivolous litigation by persons having vested interests.



According to Section 7604 of the Clean Water Act, citizen suits come in three forms.

First, a private citizen can bring a lawsuit against a citizen, corporation, or government body for engaging in conduct prohibited by the statute. For example, a citizen can sue a corporation under the Clean Water Act (CWA) for illegally polluting a waterway.

Second, a private citizen can bring a lawsuit against a government body for failing to perform a non-discretionary duty. For example, a private citizen could sue the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to promulgate regulations that the CWA required it to promulgate.

In a third, less common form, citizens may sue for an injunction to abate a potential imminent and substantial endangerment involving generation, disposal or handling of waste, regardless of whether or not the defendant's conduct violates a statutory prohibition. This third type of citizen suit is analogous to the common law tort of public nuisance.

In general, the law entitles plaintiffs who bring successful citizen suits to recover reasonable attorney fees and other litigation costs.


Citizens may only bring citizen suits in federal court if they have "standing to sue." To establish standing, the courts have required proof of three elements.

(1) First, the plaintiff must have suffered an “injury in fact"-an invasion of a legally protected interest which is

(a) Concrete and particular and

(b) Actual or imminent and not

(c) Conjectural or hypothetical

(2) Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of. The injury has to be fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant and not the result of an independent action of some third party not before the court.

(3) Third, it must be “likely" as opposed to merely “speculative" that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.

III. illustrations


A PUBLIC INTEREST LITIGATION can be filed by a person only in a case where "Public Interest" at large is affected. Merely because, only one person is affected by state inaction is not a ground for PUBLIC INTEREST LITIGATION.


Some of the possible areas where a PUBLIC INTEREST LITIGATION can be filed can be illustrated with the help of following examples :-

Where an industrial unit or a factory is causing air pollution and people near to that area are getting affected.

Where, in an area or in a street there are no street lights, causing inconvenience to the commuters.

Where some "Banquet Hall" in a residential area plays a loud music at night and causes noise pollution.

Where environmental pollution is being caused by some construction company by cutting of trees.

Where poor people, are affected, because of state government's arbitrary decision to impose heavy "tax".

For directing the police or Jail authorities to take appropriate decisions in regards to jail reforms, such as segregation of convicts, delay in trial, production of under trial before the court on remand dates.

For abolishing child labour and bonded labour.

Where rights of the working women are being affected by sexual harassment.

For keeping a check on corruption and crime involving holders of high political officer.

For the maintenance of the roads, sewer etc in good conditions.

Recently a PIL had been filed which directed the "Delhi Traffic Police" to stop the method of sending challans to address by post, as it is being misused.


Citizen suits are usually based on claims of defamation, discrimination, or contract interference, and can effectively deter individuals from pursuing environmental enforcement cases. Some states have attempted to reign in SLAPP suits, but such actions continue to intimidate individuals. Despite certain industries' counteractive measures, however, citizen suit continue to be a valuable tool in environment enforcement.

Environmental laws that allow citizen suits include:

Clean Water Act

Safe Drinking Water Act

Clean Air Act 1970

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act

Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977

Endangered Species Act of 1973

Emergency Planning and Community Right To Know Act of 1986- SARA Title III




A PIL is filed in a High court in a form of writ under Article 226 of the Constitution of India and then two copies of the petition have to be filed. Also, an advance copy of the petition has to be served on the each respondent, i.e. opposite party, and this proof of service has to be affixed on the petition.


If a PIL is filed in the Supreme Court i.e. under Article 32 of the constitution. then (four + one) (i.e. five) sets of petition have to be filed. The opposite party is served the copy of the petition only when notice is issued.


Proceedings in the PIL commence and carry on in the same manner just like in the other cases.

However, it in important to note that in between the proceedings if the judge feels he may appoint (it is his discretion) a commissioner, to inspect allegations like whether pollution is being caused, trees are being cut or there actually exists sewer problems, etc.

After the opposite party files his reply replies and the petitioner files his rejoinder and the final hearing takes place, the judge gives his final decision.

In People's Democratic Union vs. Union of India, a letter addressed by the petitioner organization seeking a direction against the respondents for ensuring observance of the provisions of famous labour laws in relation to workmen employed in the construction work of projects connected with the Asian games was entertained as a PIL.

The SC has encouraged the filing of PIL for tackling issues related to environment, human rights etc.


Can a Letter Explaining Certain Facts to the Chief Justice be treated as a PIL?

In India there have been instances, where judges of the courts have treated a post card containing facts as a Public Interest Litigation. For example a letter alleging the illegal limestone quarrying which devastated the fragile environment in the Himalayan foothills around Mussoorie, was treated as a PIL by the court.


In the United States, as far as citizen suits are concerned, the plaintiff must provide advance notice to the government and the defendant of his intent to file the suit, and there is a brief period during which time the government can pre-empt the suit by filing its own enforcement action or undertaking the disputed government action. It is important to note that the plaintiff must, however, still satisfy applicable standing requirements such as the constitutional requirement of injury-in-fact traceable to a defendant’s action that can be redressed through court action. The relief in such cases is generally confined to injunctions and civil fines paid to the US government. If the citizen or NGO prevails, it frequently can recover reasonable court costs and attorneys’ fees.


 The concept of Public Interest Litigation as it exists in India has its both positive and negative sides. For example, In Public Interest Litigation (PIL) vigilant citizens of the country can institute such petition and obtain an inexpensive legal remedy as the court fee fixed for filing such petition is nominal. Furthermore, through PIL, the litigants become sensitive to public issues and focus attention on and try to achieve results pertaining to larger public issues, especially in the fields of human rights, consumer welfare and environment. However, the development of the concept of PIL in India has also uncovered its pitfalls and drawbacks. As a result, the Apex court has been compelled to lay down certain guidelines to govern the administration and disposal of PILs. Since the court fee fixed for filing PILs is nominal, of late, many of the PIL activists in the country have found the PIL as a handy tool of harassment since frivolous cases could be filed without investment of heavy court fees as required in private civil litigation. Just as a weapon meant for defence can be used equally effectively for offence, the lowering the requirement of locus standi has permitted people to file privately motivated petitions in guise of public interests. The abuse of PIL has become more rampant than its use and genuine causes are being looked upon with the eyes of suspicion.

However, the concept of Citizen suits as it exists in the United States has improved the enforcement of environmental laws over the past quarter century. In response, during the 1980s, polluters created a defense policy against these lawsuits. Strategic Litigation against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits are civil lawsuits brought by alleged polluters against the citizens who attempt to compel enforcement action against them. Some states have attempted to reign in SLAPP suits, but such actions continue to intimidate individuals. Citizen suits continue to be a valuable tool in environmental enforcement despite counteractive measures by certain industries.